When Carrie Fisher died last month, sci-fi fans everywhere felt like they lost a family member. While most people immediately identify Fisher as Princess Leia, she was a hero to many for her openness about her battles with mental illness.
As I read tributes to Fisher, I saw just as many that recognized her candidness about being bipolar as those celebrating her role in Star Wars. Listmaker BuzzFeed.com even posted 13 things Fisher said about living with mental illness. Included in that list: "The only lesson for me, or anybody, is that you have to get help," which she told People magazine in 2013.
When our idols speak candidly about their struggles, it makes it easier to get beyond the stigma of mental illness. Acknowledging mental illness is just the first step, and as Fisher said, you have to get help, which isn't so easy.
I learned this firsthand about 18 months ago when I tried to help someone find a psychiatrist. After a family practitioner suggested Amanda (not her real name, because let's be honest, there's still some stigma) meet with a psychiatrist, we looked to the list of her insurance-approved providers in Colorado Springs. At that time, there were about 60. But one after another turned us away. I looked at the printed pages of names, the majority crossed off, and realized someone in the midst of a crisis might see this exercise as unbearable.
Since that time 18 months ago, things have sort of improved.
"One of the biggest opportunities and challenges in the past three years has been the expansion of Medicaid — so more people than ever have health benefits, including mental health services," says Lori Jarvis-Steinwert, executive director the National Alliance on Mental Illness – Colorado Springs. Despite the increase in the number of people who can seek services, or perhaps because of it, it's taking less time to see a mental health provider.
While wait times to see a provider have decreased, Jarvis-Steinwert says there's still a major shortage of mental health care providers in our community — and across the country — who can prescribe medication, because many psychiatrists have retired and no one has replaced them.
Another cruel twist for patients: "Because of the demand for local prescribing providers," Jarvis-Steinwert says, "many don't even accept health insurance — because they don't have to — and they still have thriving practices with patients who are paying out-of-pocket for their psychiatric services."
Susan Seiler, chief operating officer at local mental health provider AspenPointe, agrees that the shortage poses a challenge. She recalls hearing there are just 50,000 board-certified psychiatrists in the United States, and the number of those who serve adolescents is far fewer.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that in 2015 Colorado had a severe shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists with just 181 statewide to serve 1.2 million-plus children under 18. When our community is receiving national attention because of suicide clusters, it's alarming to learn that there were just 16 child and adolescent psychiatrists serving El Paso County in 2015. Seiler sees adolescence as a time when we build a toolbox that includes resiliency and coping mechanisms among other skills that children can carry with them into adulthood.
Jarvis-Steinwert says that her office receives about 200 calls a month from people seeking mental health assistance. These come from individuals or family members looking for guidance, often at the onset of mental illness symptoms. She says many are desperate to find prescribers.
Psychiatrists are only one answer. AspenPointe, whose mission is to offer exceptional behavioral health care one patient at a time, offers many options to assist people. Seiler says anyone can call for an intake, and there's no waiting for that. After the intake, the care will vary based on needs.
Some patients can benefit from telepsychiatry. She says some providers retired and moved to warmer climates, but with technology — a secure video call — they can still provide services. AspenPointe also has case managers who can work with primary care doctors to make sure a patient's mental health requirements are met along with physical health needs.
So what should someone who is ready to address their mental health needs do? "Call AspenPointe," says Seiler, only half-joking.
But she reinforces the most important step is talking to someone — a family doctor, a crisis call line or a mental health professional.
The more we talk, the more we normalize the experience.